Aborigine Philip Obah of North Queensland, Australia , talks
about his culture and Baha'i faith during a recent visit to
Photo by Craig Robinson
Aborigine man bridges gap between cultures, religions
GALLUP - There may be a lot of ocean between us and the aborigines of
Australia. But one man is trying to educate people about different cultures
to show that they are really not so different on a spiritual level.
Philip Obah, an aborigine from the Wadja Tribe of North Queensland, Australia,
visited Gallup and the reservation at the invitation of the Baha'i community
of Gallup in an effort to educate about cultural differences that are often
Obah said he currently acts as an ambassador in building relationships between
the aborigines and the wider community in hopes of breaking down stereotypes
"When you look at the dictionary term of prejudice, it's about prejudging
people," Obah said. "What we're doing are programs to make people become
more aware of different cultures, to relate to each other on a spiritual and
Obah earned a bachelor's degree in community welfare from the James Cook
University in Australia. This degree hits home for Obah who said that while
aborigines have made strides in education and health care, they have a long
way to go since they were not considered Australian citizens and were not
even counted in the census until 1967.
Obah was nominated to be a tribe elder, to look after the spiritual well-being
of the tribe and to guide the community and family members. How many family
members is he talking about?
"I've never counted them," Obah laughed. But, he did draw a map
designating that his extended family stretches all the way up the eastern
side of Australia, from tip to tip.
"We don't have terms like cousins," Obah said. "We are all
brothers and sisters."
Orphans are nonexistent since aunts and uncles carry on the same roles as
mothers and fathers. Obah inherited the role of grandmother when his sister
passed away. Grandmother? Obah affirms that he takes her place, making him
Marriages are dictated by kinship, also know as skin names. This prevents
marrying too close to one's bloodline. He likened this to Native American
Obah's tribe is matriarchal, meaning the mother is recognized as the head of
the family or tribe.
Everything has a spirit to the aborigines who believe the air, rocks, trees,
language, law and culture and art all come from the Creator.
The aborigines believe that a rainbow serpent was God's messenger, teaching
moral and spiritual laws. Obah said these laws also helped the aborigines
adapt to harsh Australian environments. However, Christian missionaries in
Australia saw it differently.
"In the Bible the serpent was evil because it tempted Adam and Eve," Obah
said. "They thought the aborigines were worshipping the devil."
"God appeared to Moses as a burning bush," Obah said. "If God could
appear to Moses as a burning bush, surely he could appear to us as a rainbow
Obah also addressed the aboriginal oral tradition, which is often seen as
being inferior to a written tradition. He argues that just because it's not
written in the Bible doesn't mean it never existed.
Zealous missionaries put the aborigines in boarding schools and taught them
Christianity. The faith they learned depended on which school they attended.
Obah went to a Catholic school, so he became Catholic. Obah paralleled this
to many of the area's Native Americans who were also sent to boarding schools.
The missionaries brought their own laws that aborigines were forced to
adhere to, causing them to break their own traditional laws. Just speaking
their own native tongue meant imprisonment for the aborigines.
"It squashed out a lot of our teachings," Obah said. "Today
I can't speak my own language. We were not allowed to practice it."
The languages were kept alive only by those aborigines who hid out or were
too far in the bush to be captured. Obah noted that aborigines who were
caught from the 600 or so tribes were mixed together, which muddled things
further and caused friction between enemy tribes that got mixed up.
Obah pointed out the irony that conservationists are now preaching what the
aborigines always practiced. Nature has always been a priority for the
"We're connected to nature and nature's connected to us," Obah
said. "Nature is not outside in a national park. You are a part of it,
The Baha'is believe, among other things, in one God, in the oneness of
humankind, in the harmony of science and religion and the equality of men
"I wasn't looking for religion," Obah said. "I was on a
journey of looking at my own traditional culture."
Obah, a self-described retired Catholic, said it was the Baha'i faith that
helped him understand the colonization of his people.
He realized it was inevitable, according to what Bahullah, the founder of
the Baha'i faith, had written.
"The way it happened I don't agree with," Obah said of the
colonization. " But it had to happen to bring about the unity of
"Before Baha'i we (the aborigines) hated everyone white," Obah
said. "We marched the streets and told them to get on the boat and go
Obah said he believed that although different religions call God by different
names, they are in fact all referring to the same creator. Obah embraced the
Baha'i faith because it does not believe one group or one culture is superior
Obah does not see himself as a prophet or a preacher.
"I'm no one special," Obah said, adding that he's just a man who
travels and talks.
Obah said his goal through various programs is to increase awareness of the
different cultures to help people relate to each other on a spiritual and
In Obah's view, one culture doesn't take precedence over another.
"It doesn't matter who we are, we all have souls," Obah said. He
said the difference lies in the level of awareness one has of his or her
He is one of the nine of the Baha'i National Assembly of Australia. There are
three different levels: a nine-member local assembly, a nine-member national
assembly for each country and a nine-member Universal House of Justice.
Obah first went to England, where he gave talks at Oxford. He then moved on
to Israel for a week, Canada for two weeks and the U.S. for a week before
jetting off to Somoa. He then heads home to rejoin his wife and six children.
How does he sum it up?
"It's been a good journey, socially and spiritually," Obah said.
©Copyright 2001, Gallup Independent (NM)